Elgin City 1 Raith Rovers 2
Raith Rovers bodyswerved a potential Scottish Cup shock in Elgin this afternoon with a professional performance securing a narrow 2-1 victory at Borough Briggs.
Cup ties away to lower league teams can be tricky at the best of times, but for an injury-hit Raith side, without a win in five, up against an Elgin side unbeaten at home this season, the 340-mile round trip to the north east looked a particularly dangerous one.
However, Raith’s hard-working performance showed the League Two hosts the respect their home record deserved and despite another late wobble - the theme of the past week for the Kirkcaldy men - they deserved their victory, and their place in the fourth round.
Injuries in defence meant that David Bates was recalled from his loan at Brechin and the 19-year-old was slotted straight into right back. His assured performance showed that his spell at Glebe Park has certainly been worthwhile.
There were no other changes from the side that drew with St Mirren in midweek, with Kyle Benedictus again captaining the side in the absence of Jason Thomson.
The game passed a Friday pitch inspection following heavy rainfall but the pitch was very heavy underfoot, ensuring a gruelling shift for both sets of players.
Raith seemed unsettled in the first five minutes and were caught in possession a number of times in their own half, leading to an early booking for Bates.
However, once Raith got the ball down and started to pass and move, Elgin found it extremely difficult to get it off them.
Grant Anderson gave Elgin full back Archie McPhee a torrid time in the early stages, skinning him at almost every opportunity, only the final ball was lacking.
Raith’s first chance came on 16 minutes as Jon Daly capitalised on two Elgin defenders going for, and missing the same ball, but the big striker’s attempt from the edge of the area was weak and off target.
Four minutes later, Mark Stewart was denied a clean run on goal when referee George Salmond called the play back for a high boot after the striker had nicked the ball past the last defender. It was a borderline decision.
Elgin were sitting deep and looking to hit on the break but Rovers got in behind them on 29 minutes, Stewart latching onto Daly’s flick-on to shoot from a narrow angle. Goalkeeper Stewart Black made a good save and rebound broke into the middle of the penalty area leading to a frantic scramble for the loose ball.
Inrushing midfielder Scott Robertson won the race but on the stretch, and under some pressure, he could only stab the ball over the empty net.
Raith boss Ray McKinnon was keeping on top of his players, constantly urging them to make forward runs, and he would have been pleased with the movement that led to the opening goal on 38 minutes.
Following some good pass and move football, James Craigen made a driving run into the box to latch onto Stewart’s lay-off, only to be bundled to the ground from behind by Brian Cameron for a clear penalty kick.
Ryan McCord placed the ball on the spot, and his well struck effort sent Black the wrong way.
Raith may not have expected such a comfortable first half against a side that has been scoring goals for fun in their division - aside from an occasional breakway Elgin carried little threat.
This changed at the start of the second half as Jim Weir’s side came out with a more positive approach and would have equalised two mintues after the restart but for a stunning save from the previously underworked Kevin Cuthbert.
Neither of the Raith centre-halves seemed to react to an innocuous forward ball, allowing the speedy Craig Gunn a clear run on goal, but Cuthbert made himself big to brilliantly block the striker’s effort.
Dylan Easton then cracked a 25-yard effort narrowly wide, before the same player sent over a cross that was just missed at the front post by Gunn, then at the back post by McLaren.
Elgin’s more attack-minded start to the second half gave Raith more space going forward, and in the 53rd minute, Stewart collected the ball in acres at the back post only to be denied by a fantastic flying save from Black, who tipped his powerful strike over the bar.
However, Elgin’s relief was temporary as from McCord’s corner, the ball was only partially cleared to the edge of the area, where Anderson fired a measured shot through the crowd and into the net past an unsighted Black for a more comfortable 2-0 lead.
Raith were a bit naive when they left themselves open to a counter attack from their own corner five minutes later, a lack of cover allowing Cameron a clear 40 yard run on goal, but Cuthbert again did brilliantly to stretch out his boot and deflect the effort wide.
The game then hit a lull with Raith continuing to dominate possession but lacking the sharpness up front to completely finish their opponents off, while Elgin appeared to be a bit deflated by the scoreline.
However, Raith’s last two games, which saw them lose points to late goals, seemed to be in the back of the players’ minds as some uncertainty crept into the game as it entered the closing stages.
And sure enough, in the 90th minute, a hopeful ball into the Raith box - the same kind that was headed clear all game - wasn’t dealt with on this occasion and when the ball skimmed off the head of Benedictus, Elgin sub Jordan Halsman fired home the loose ball.
There was only injury-time for Raith to negotiate, but just as in Dumbarton the previous week, panic set in and Elgin’s next attack almost resulted in an equaliser as Cameron burst through a defence gripped by fear but his side-footed effort was held on the line by Cuthbert.
Raith resorted to time-wasting to help themselves over the line, and when the full-time whistle sounded, there was a few shakes of the head among the players as they trooped off as if to say, “I can’t believe we almost blew it again”.
The mentality needs to be stronger in the closing stages, but on this occasion it didn’t cost them - Rovers are in the draw for the fourth round and in that regard this was a job well done.
Elgin City: Black, Cooper, McPhee, McHardy, Nicolson, Reilly, McLaren (McKenzie 64), Cameron, Gunn, Easton (Halsman 87), Moore (McLean 64). Not used: Bruce, Storrier.
Raith Rovers: Cuthbert, Bates, Benedictus, Davidson, McKeown, Anderson (Callachan 64), McCord (Matthews 88), Robertson, Craigen, Stewart, Daly. Not used: Laidlaw, Petrie, Ford, Campbell, Mackie.
Referee: George Salmond